Saturday 26 May 2018

Lock stocks hold the key as bitter rivals descend on Twickenham with epic series score to settle

Wales' Jamie Roberts celebrates after Wales' World Cup victory over England at Twickenham last year. Photo: PA
Wales' Jamie Roberts celebrates after Wales' World Cup victory over England at Twickenham last year. Photo: PA

Eddie Butler

It is still probably a good idea in the minds of the coaches. And presumably they will be telling their players that if they, the privileged ones to be wearing the shirt, don't think it's a good idea, then their careers are not going to be extended much beyond this afternoon. So, all in all, England-Wales can't be such a bad idea.

It is, after all, a series decider, what with the teams level on one victory apiece over the season. Wales won in the World Cup at Twickenham and England won there in the Six Nations on their way to the Grand Slam. What's wrong with acclimatising the sides to the notion of a showdown? They'll both be off to the southern hemisphere soon for three-match series, and what wouldn't they both give to be in contention after two Tests? One-all with one to play; get used to the feeling - think big, England and Wales.

It was still a good idea when England knew they would be without their Saracens and Exeter players. Unavailability is an everyday reality, and at the end of any campaign teams have to be able to absorb the loss of any number of players and keep their spirits up, their shape intact and their set-plays memorised. So, get out there and play.

How shall they play? England have a little bit of the throwback about them, with Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury reunited in the second row. The rise of Maro Itoje and George Kruis in Eddie Jones's first chapter with England helped underline not only the new coach's daring in selection but also the role of the lock as a sexy place to play. Sure, they have to be big, but they have to be athletic and even silky.

On the Wales side, Luke Charteris will be missed. He is not exactly the silkiest, being half a metre too long of back and limb to be anything more elegant than an invader from The War of the Worlds, but he stretches his arms to remarkable effect. His tackle count led the way in Europe and he is a most intelligent infiltrator of mauls. Jake Ball, who comes in for the Racing 92 player still involved in the regular season of the Top 14 - that is, they haven't even started the play-offs - is a different sort of lock, more dynamic off the mark, but not as telescopic as Charteris.

That leaves Alun Wyn Jones, a stalwart of the Wales pack in the age of Warren Gatland. He has been recovering from a heel injury, and his nation has been pleased to see him take time out. If ever a player has flogged himself season in, season out for region and country, it has been AWJ.

The problem now for a 32-year-old with 98 caps to his name is that the world catches up, and it will take a ferocious determination to reimpose himself on a game that has grown accustomed to the sight of Kruis and Itoje dominating individually and as a duo. On the other hand, it has never dared to be suggested that AWJ lacks devotion to the cause. His comeback will be . . . interesting.

The second rows deserve top billing because they may well have more of a say today than players in daintier positions. Wales, encouraged by their coach to be a little less cautious, are trying to push up the tempo, in readiness for the fields of New Zealand, but it has been difficult for them to abandon the style that the same coach imposed on them when he arrived in 2008.

And very successful that forthright, power-based game was. It's just time to update it, and Wales are not entirely comfortable when egged on to be more elastic. Even in their concluding and resounding 67-14 dispatch of Italy in the last game of the Six Nations, there were times in the first half when their passing made their coaches wince. There is no guarantee, after a break from international intensity, that they will be fluid from the off.

The second rows may have a heavy load if the ball does not go accurately to other quarters.

England, too, may take time to settle. It's a reason to play this game - wire-brush the rust off the rhythms at Twickenham to hit the ground running and passing in Australia and New Zealand, go one-nil up and take the series to a decider. It's a sound theory.

It's just that the sun is shining (sort of), the summer is under way, and somehow it doesn't feel right, even if it serves to settle a series that has never been short of drama, to have England-Wales at Twickenham.


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